KYIV, June 23 (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Moscow’s massive air and artillery attacks were aimed at destroying the entire Donbas region and urged Ukraine’s allies to accelerate the shipment of heavy weapons to match Russia on the battlefield.
The fight for the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in Ukraine’s Luhansk region is “entering a sort of fearsome climax”, said Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to Zelenskiy. Russia is seeking to capture both Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up the Donbas region – the nation’s industrial heartland.
On the diplomatic front, European leaders on Thursday will formally set Ukraine on the long road to EU membership at a summit in Brussels. Though mainly symbolic, the move will help lift morale after four-months of bloody conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions and destroyed cities.
“We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly,” Zelenskiy said in a video address released early Thursday, reiterating Ukrainian demands for larger and faster weapons.
“There were massive air and artillery strikes in Donbas. The occupier’s goal here is unchanged, they want to destroy the entire Donbas step-by-step,” he said.
“This is why we again and again emphasize the acceleration of arm deliveries to Ukraine. What is quickly needed is parity on the battlefield in order to halt this diabolical armada and push it beyond Ukraine’s borders.”
BATTLE FOR TWIN CITIES
The fierce war of attrition in the Donbas is at its most critical in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
Ukrainian forces were defending Sievierodonetsk and the nearby settlements of Zolote and Vovchoyrovka, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said on Thursday, but added Russia had captured Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka to the south.
Hundreds of civilians are trapped in a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk, with Ukraine and Russia disputing who controls the bombed-out city.
Moscow says Ukrainian forces in the city are surrounded and trapped. But Gaidai told Ukrainian Television on Wednesday that “Russian forces do not have full control.”
On Lysychansk, Gaidai said it was “very dangerous in the city” as all of it was within reach of Russian fire.
“In order to avoid encirclement, our command could order that the troops retreat to new positions. There may be a regrouping after last night,” he added.
Tass news agency cited Russian-backed separatists saying Lysychansk was now surrounded and cut off from supplies after a road connecting the city to the town Sieviersk was taken.
Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the report.
According to Britain’s defence ministry, Russian forces have highly likely advanced more than 5 km (3.11 miles) towards the southern approaches of Lysychansk since June 19.
“Some Ukrainian units have withdrawn, probably to avoid being encircled,” it said on Twitter.
“Russian forces are putting the Lysychansk-Sievierodonetsk pocket under increasing pressure with this creeping advance … however, its efforts to achieve a deeper encirclement to take western Donetsk Oblast remain stalled,” the ministry added.
Arestovych said Russian forces in both cities were conscripts of varying levels of training after Ukraine inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces. Reuters could not verify his comments on Russian losses.
“It’s like two boxers grappling with each other in the 18th round of a bout and barely able to move things forward. This operation started on 14th April and has been going on for nearly 80 days,” he said in an online video post.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what the Kremlin calls a “special operation” to ensure Russian security and denazify Ukraine. Ukraine and the West call this a baseless pretext for a war of choice that has raised fears of wider conflict in Europe.
Russia has long opposed closer links between Ukraine, a former Soviet state, and Western clubs like the European Union (EU) and the NATO military alliance.
Zelenskiy said he had spoken to 11 EU leaders on Wednesday about Ukraine’s candidacy and will make more calls on Thursday.
Diplomats say it will take Ukraine a decade or more to meet the criteria for joining the EU. But EU leaders say the bloc must make a gesture that recognises Ukraine’s sacrifice.
The war in Ukraine has had a massive impact on the global economy and European security, driving up gas, oil and food prices, pushing the EU to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energy and prompting Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
The EU will temporarily shift back to coal to cope with dwindling Russian gas flows without derailing longer-term climate goals, an EU official said on Wednesday.
Leaders from the Group of Seven and NATO will seek to increase pressure on Russia at meetings next week, U.S. administration officials said.